Two weeks had gone by and Katara had already adjusted to her duties as Southern Water Tribe ambassador quite nicely. She sat in on the trade commission and in most meetings related to treaties with other nations and she kept up communications with active trade routes and with the South Pole. She wished she could do more but ambassador or not she was still Southern Water Tribe, and a lot of the Fire Nation representatives still treated her like an outsider.
It might have made her upset if Zuko hadn't taken to treating her as one of his closest advisors. She did a lot of drafting and research with him and she could tell how much he trusted her opinions. It meant a lot to her to feel so useful and depended upon.
They were in his office one night, discussing a new proposal, when a servant came in with a sealed scroll.
“This just came for you from the counsel, Fire Lord.”
“Thank you. Dismissed.” The servant bowed and closed the door behind him. Katara took the cue and started to follow.
“Where are you going?”
Katara blinked. “Well, it just seems like it’s some urgent, secretive matter. I didn’t want to impose.”
Zuko smiled crookedly. “You could never.”
She had been getting better at taking Zuko’s sweet comments for what they were: confirmations of a close friendship. But since it was new, it was still a bit of a challenge.
“It actually is an urgent, secretive matter.” His smile turned bitter. “My suitor awaits.”
“Oh! The list! I forgot you were waiting for it to come.”
“I didn’t,” he sighed. She waited for him to open it, but it didn’t seem like he had plans to.
“You know, it won’t go away just because you’re glaring at it."
His glare shifted to her before he pinched his nose and sighed. “Alright, alright.” He took a deep breath and broke the seal.
He looked at all the names with the same carefully measured frown until..
“What? What is it? Is it someone you hate?,” Katara’s eyes widened. “Do I know her?!”
Zuko just stared at her blankly, now white as a ghost. “I..,” but he seemed completely incapable of finishing that thought.
“Oh, just hand it over.” She pulled it from his hands and scanned for anyone that sounded familiar.
When she saw it, her jaw clenched and her voice came out dark and dangerous.
“..is this a joke?”
“What? No! Katara, I swear—“
She felt like she was gonna burst.
“—Why is my name on that list, Zuko?!!”
“You know I didn’t have any say in this list—“
“—SHUT UP!” She knew she shouldn’t yell at him but she couldn’t help it. “I open up to you and start talking about how I’m having trouble finding someone and out of nowhere some member of the Southern Water Tribe—I believe your Nation’s term for us is peasants— I’m on your list of approved women to be Fire Lady? I'm a water bender. Are you making fun of me? What kind of game is this? Why—“
She inhaled sharply. His voice was so much lower and more powerful than she'd ever heard it.
“The Southern Water Tribe was brutalized by the fire nation--”
“--I KNOW what the fire nation did!” She clutched the necklace around her neck. “You don't need to remind me!”
Zuko sighed, voice strained, “Katara, please let me finish.”
She let out a breath and looked up into his eyes. She could feel his sincerity, so she did her best to let him speak.
“The Southern Water Tribe has a lot of reasons to mistrust us. A treaty between us in the form of marriage would be a huge vote of confidence for the fire nation. The war is over, but there's many who are still rightfully weary of us. This would be a very beneficial alliance. There is a lot of pressure for me to marry outside of the fire nation and having a marriage alliance with the Southern Water Tribe would keep either the northern tribe or earth kingdom from feeling out-maneuvered. And you are not only the daughter of a chief, but a leader in your own rite. You’re a master Water bender who has helped your nation rebuild. The Southern Water Tribe is becoming a significant political presence thanks to your brother, and your own work as ambassador has already made a huge difference in how you are being perceived as a nation.”
“But how can you be sure this isn't some joke?,” her voice still came out harsh, but she’d calmed down substantially.
“You're a war hero and the master who taught the Avatar how to water bend. I don't think anyone would risk joking around about someone like that.”
She chuckled in spite of herself and couldn't help but notice that he described her as the avatar’s master, and not just his ex. Hardly anyone did that anymore and it made her feel appreciated. It made her feel seen.
.. It made her have a thought.
She looked at him and it felt like time had stopped before she got the courage to voice it.
“You know.. you’re right”
She held her breath, looking straight into his clear, golden eyes. “It would be a very beneficial alliance..,” she said hesitantly, trying to convey what she meant without having to say it out loud.
Zuko looked back at her with an emotion she couldn't possibly name.
“Not just for you,” she rushed out. “I mean, we're still so isolated from the rest of the world. I'm glad our culture has been preserved to an extent, but having stronger ties to the fire nation would facilitate us in sharing that culture. Having an ambassador is a great start, but I still feel like there’s only so much I can do. If a Southern Water Tribe woman were Fire Lady, there would be so many opportun--”
“--Katara,” his brow furrowed and she couldn’t help but find it adorable. La he’s handsome.
“I wasn't trying to convince you.”
His words hit her like freezing rain. Katara felt her chest ache and all she wanted to do was hide in a hole.
“I'm so sorry. You were just so .. convincing, I guess,” she tried to laugh it off. “I got carried away.” She muttered under her breath, “Of course I'm not a real option.”
“Oh come on it's not like you're not--"
She looked at him again and saw that strange emotion was back on his face.
“It's not like you wouldn't make a good Fire Lady. But you're my friend and I could never force you into something like this."
“I just told you it’s mutually beneficial. I'm just..I’m at this stage where I’ve done so much, but it feels like there's still a lifetime ahead of me. I never want to stop doing good. I don’t think I could. But I haven't been able to figure out what the next step for me is..maybe this could be it.”
She looked at him carefully. He was so much taller and his jaw so well defined. His long, black hair framed his face in a way that was downright regal. He really looked like a man now. But she could still see the clumsiness in his affection when his eyes met hers.
She'd always felt such a connection to him. But she never had a chance to figure out her feelings. ..Aang decided they were together before she could even try to and she was too confused about what she felt to put herself out there about it. This might not be the best idea she’s ever had. To agree to marry someone while those feelings were still unresolved. While she didn't know his feelings. But she couldn't help but think of all the good she could do as fire lady. And if she was honest with herself, she didn't want to resolve those feelings. She didn't want to be rational or reserved. She wanted something new, even if it was dangerous.
“How about this? You look through the list and if there's a woman you think would make a better fire lady, let me know. But if not, I'm here. You don't have to count me out." She maintained eye contact as long as she could before turning on her heel and practically flying out of his office.
A few days had gone by and they hadn't talked about the list at all. Katara had assumed Zuko crossed her off and that that was that.
She had just joined him for breakfast and she saw he hadn't put on his crown yet. She noticed he liked to leave it off when he could get away with it. He probably didn't have any meetings today.
“La, he’s handsome with his hair down”
“Wh-What?” Zuko sputtered.
Oh Spirits . She had not meant to say that out loud.
“Your hair,” she focused really hard on sounding like she wasn't embarrassed by the words that had slipped out of her mouth. “I just meant it's a good look for you. The ponytail was a bit eccentric and the scruffy look was hot, but it didn't feel like you. The long hair makes you look..” incredibly sexy “..powerful.”
Zukos eyes shot into his hair line “You thought I was hot?”
Katara groaned. She really couldn't think right around him sometimes. “I don't know. Maybe. A little."
Zukko smirked, "hmm..good to know"
She hid her face in her bowl of rice with hot flakes, knowing her skin must've matched the color of the spice by now.
“You know, I did too.”
“Well, I always thought you were beautiful.”
“You don't have to lie to make me feel better."
Zuko smiled softly, “I wouldn't.”
They finished their breakfast in silence but Katara couldn't stop grinning the whole time.
Maybe he was still thinking about it.
Over the next week or so, Katara felt that something had shifted between them.
Their talks were longer and less work oriented. They discussed fire nation music and how Zuko hoped to bring back the artistic traditions of the fire nation that had been all but lost over the last hundred years. They talked about how there had been a few elderly prisoners of war that had made their way back to the Southern Water Tribe and how much it had meant for Katara to be able to learn and connect to her culture the past few years.
They talked about Zuko’s mother and his half sister and how even though he felt beyond blessed to have them in his life, he knew he'd never stop wishing that Azula could recover. Apparently, she was doing better. She no longer tried to kill the staff at the hospital that was now her permanent residence, at least. It was definitely a start.
“Hey, Katara?” They had been sitting in the garden one day, one of Zuko’s favorite places in the palace, talking about work. But the conversation had long since shifted and Katara was now catching him up on what was happening with their old crew.
“It's just. I'm curious about something. But I don't want to pry.”
“What is it?
He hesitated,"I don't want to overstep.”
“Just spit it out, Fire Lord ,” she teased. She had gotten used to calling him by his title in official settings, but when it was just them there was no need for procedure.
“If we're really considering being together for the rest of our lives, I want to know something.” Katara froze. She had been pretty sure that he’d been considering her in theory, but to hear him say it out loud like that made her heart flutter. It even sounded kind of romantic.
“What happened between you and Aang?”
Aaaand so much for the romance.
She frowned, “..I kind of hate talking about it.”
Zukko raised his eyebrow. "That bad?"
"No, not bad," she chuckled sadly. "Just.. depressing."
She stared out into the garden. "I probably should have known we'd be better as friends. He was my first crush but I never felt like I needed him, you know? And I knew he felt like he needed me. Honestly, it was really nice feeling so wanted, but I think we were imbalanced in a lot of ways. It's not like I regret being with him. He was good to me and in the beginning we'd felt so in sync. But after a few years together, something started to feel.. not right.”
She wandered over to sit on a stone bench and trained her eyes on the turtle-duck pond.
“Aang would leave when he needed to and come back when he wanted to.. but how could I blame him for that? He's literally an air nomad for crying out loud. I knew I could always go with him. But I wasn't actually needed by his side. I was never there as Katara. I was there as the Avatar's girlfriend. That's not the kind of life I wanted to live. So I stayed back in the South Pole more and more, but it felt like I was the only one affected by our time a part. And after a while, even when he was with me, I felt so ..”
She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes. “How did you know?”
Zukos sighed and joined her on the bench.
“It was like that with Mai at the end. I felt so disconnected to her that even when we were spending time together I felt like she was worlds away. She's so strong. And it's pitiful for me to hold that against her. But I got to a point where I felt like if I died, she wouldn't even cry about it. Like she would mourn an appropriate time and then force herself to move on. And I'm just not like that. I couldn't understand her and it was making me miserable. Then I let it go on too long because I felt guilty. It was a complete mess.”
“Well I'm glad we both have such good track records”
“Katara.” He reached for her hand and rubbed circles onto it with his thumb. Katara was suddenly very aware of how their knees were touching “I need you to understand that I'm really considering this.”
Katara nodded, not trusting her voice to sound anywhere near normal. He put his arm over her shoulder and she was happy to share his warmth. It felt so intimate and after a moment, she had a surge of courage and found herself nuzzling into his chest. When he pulled her even closer, she felt overwhelmed with joy.
They stayed just like that for a long time until they both decided it was getting late. Then, the Fire Lord held out a hand and offered to walk her back to her chambers.
When they reached their destination, Zuko slipped her hand out of his and kissed it and she chastised herself for blushing so hard over something so small.
“Goodnight, Katara,” he whispered so close to her ear it made her skin prickle.
She fought to keep her voice steady as he walked away. “Goodnight, Zuko.”
“Uncle I have to talk to you about something. You'll probably hear about it anyway, eventually..plus..I need advice..”
Zuko had requested his uncle take some time off from the Jasmine Dragon to visit him, attached with the promise of an imported ginseng tea from the forest above the Western Air Temple.
Iroh smiled, "Of course I will do my best to impart wisdom, but remember that your choices are always your own."
Zuko sighed and led them to a table set with tea and small cakes. Once they sat down, he told his uncle about the list of candidates. How Katara was on the list. How they'd been getting so much closer lately. And how he didn't want to force her into something she would regret for his own gain.
Iroh chuckled warm and low, “Do you believe Katara would ever let you force her into something like this? I am not going to claim to understand what she’s thinking. But if you both trust each other, well, I must say you could do much worse.”
“Oh ha ha,” Zuko rolled his eyes.
“No, truly. Don't overthink, Fire Lord Zuko. You are her friend. She knows you and I'm sure she knows exactly what she's agreeing to”
Zuko sighed. He was still wary. But how could he possibly turn down that kind of opportunity. Especially the other options being what they were.
"Thank you Uncle. I have a lot to think about."
"Of course. But just so you know, you don't need to bribe me into visiting with my favorite nephew. Although this tea is quite lovely, I hope you know you can contact me anytime you want."
"Uncle, I know you're busy with your own life--"
"--Never too busy to help you," Iroh's voice turned slightly serious. "Please remember that."
Zuko's good eye crinkled and the corners of his mouth rose up. "Thank you, uncle."
It was just starting to get dark when there was a knock on Katara’s door. She hadn't seen Zuko all day and couldn't believe she was already missing him. She tried not to think of how scary it was that she had already become so dependent on his presence.
Zuko opened the door and closed it behind him. She felt relieved and anxious all in one.
“Do you still mean it?”
“What you said before, not to count you out?”
Katara's heart was practically beating out of her chest. She really hoped this was what she thought it was. “Of course I do.”
“I need to know why.”
She looked at him, bemused. “I already told you why. It's a mutually beneficial alliance.”
“No.” Zuko sighed. “Katara, I need to know why you would marry someone you weren't in love with.”
Katara took a deep breath.
“I want to do what's best for my tribe. And marrying one of my best friends, romantic love or not, seems like an easy concession. You know, I really do want to get married and have a family."
"But that doesn't mean you have to give up on--"
"--I'm not giving up on anything! I want to raise a family but I also don't want to stop being useful and helping people. You make me feel needed without asking me to change who I am and that combination is really hard to come by. I want to settle down, but most opportunites to do so come with me giving up a huge part of myself."
She didn't want to say it out loud. She didn’t even want to think it. But the truth was she didn't just want to settle down anymore. She wanted to settle down with him .
"Alright then." Zuko reached into his tunic and pulled something from his pocket. “I know you might still want to wear your mother's. But I thought..just so you could have it..”
He handed her a round carving. It was a relief of flames melting into a wave and she noticed that the hand holding it was bandaged at the fingers. He actually made it himself. She could feel her tears straining to stay in her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I know it's not that good. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“Im not crying!”
“Yea. Sure. Well..I didn’t mean to make you ..water bend out of your eyes.”
She laughed and could feel a few tears break free and roll down her cheek.
“Thank you, Zuko, I'm so happy." She ran her fingers over the carving. "And this means so much to me."
He wiped away a tear from her cheek, pulling her into a soft embrace.
“I thought it might.”